Given the theater world’s historically Jewish track record, it’s not surprising that the recently announced production team of Drama High—a new NBC pilot based on Michael Sokolove’s 2013 nonfiction book about a working-class high school’s theater department in Levittown, Pennsylvania—is mainly composed of members of the tribe. (Lest we forget, that song from Spamalot that comically immortalizes the influence of Jews on the Great White Way.) And, of Drama High’s three executive producers―Broadway’s Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton, Rent), former NBC executive Flody Suarez, and Jason Katims, who created NBC’s Parenthood and wrote for and produced Friday Night Lights for the network―Seller and Katims are Jewish, as is Sokolove himself.
More pertinent than their shared religion, however, is the fact that Seller, like Sokolove, grew up in a town that has a working-class ethos. Sokolove hails from a section of Levittown―an archetypal post-WWII planned community outside Philadelphia where a now-defunct steel mill attracted blue-collar residents, and where Jews were in the minority and where his “father was the rare college-educated person.” In the ’70s, he attended the same institution (Harry S. Truman High School) that he writes about in Drama High. Meanwhile, Seller, who was raised by adoptive parents in suburban Detroit, “had the strange experience of being a Jewish kid in which my family kept dropping in socioeconomic status and not rising,” he summarized in a New York Times Magazine profile that Sokolove penned about his producing career.
As a theater geek, I had high expectations for Drama High when the book was released a few years ago. Reading it reminded me to be thankful for my own high school theater program, which, while strictly a hobby, was nonetheless an enriching experience. In addition to having ensemble roles in musicals, I also acted in and designed costumes for one-act plays, most memorably a spoof of Star Wars and Star Trek. Beyond the nostalgia for my own theater days, I also reflected on how, at my school, in a relatively affluent New Jersey suburb, we produced work that was tamer (The Wizard of Oz, Hairspray) than the material that Lou Volpe, Truman’s daring director, selected. While family-oriented fare is often more lucrative, edgier content can be more relevant to teenage thespians. I wonder if, had my high school’s program been able to produce a show like Spring Awakening―a sexually charged rock musical―more students would have auditioned.
Even without prior knowledge (and a personal connection) to theater, I would have still become immersed in the milieu that Sokolove captures: the genesis of theater lovers and performers who learn to see beyond the scope of their suburban lives under Volpe’s mentorship. Thanks to Volpe, who retired four years ago and was Sokolove’s favorite teacher, Truman’s acclaimed theater program was the first in the country to produce school editions of Rent and Les Misérables. At a time when arts funding is increasingly jeopardized, a show like Drama High could be an effective, wide-reaching platform for illuminating the vitality and necessity of arts programs in schools and on a national scale. Given its working-class angle―which I have faith that Seller and Co. will portray with integrity―Drama High could be even more accessible than Glee, to which the underdog story of Truman’s theater department has garnered obvious comparisons.